Sean Connolly, CEO of The Hillshire Brands Company, said in his opening keynote at the PRWeek Conference Wednesday that more CEOs are embracing transparency partly because of PR and communications professionals' influence.
Connolly said his company's management embraced transparency to inspire trust in stakeholders as the former Sara Lee Corporation split into two entities, Hillshire Brands and DE Master Blenders 1753, in June.
The renamed Hillshire Brands needed to raise the morale and confidence of employees, balance the unique needs of individual brands, and assure investors of the company's future, Connolly explained. Before he assumed the role of CEO in January, a company survey found that only 6% of investors believed the organization was on the right track.
Months later, that number jumped to 73%. Hillshire Brands achieved results through outreach to investors, employees, and consumers, Connolly said.
Hillshire Brands unveiled the new company name in June to its employees first, risking possible leaks because employees are its "most critical constituency," Connolly said. The company then held a day-long investor meeting in New York to explain the name change and the challenges ahead.
"We made a conscious decision to be transparent about our challenges," he said.
Following the rebranding, the company continued to reach out to its 9,500 employees through small coffee gatherings with Connolly, weekly videos in which he or other senior executives explain priorities and ask for feedback, and Q&A sessions at quarterly meetings. Before the meetings, Hillshire's communications team gathers any "tough" questions that employees might be nervous to voice in person, but participation at the sessions has gradually increased, Connolly said.
The company is also active on social media, including Facebook contests, bringing bloggers in to test new recipes, and executing a campaign for its Jimmy Dean brand that fights childhood hunger. These efforts have been important to fostering trust among customers, Connolly said.
"Transparency can't be a strategy of convenience," he said. "There's no good excuse for why a CEO wouldn't embrace transparency."
This strategy begins with a "tight partnership" between the C-suite and corporate communications, he added. When Connolly took over as CEO, he reorganized the reporting structure so that CCO Jon Harris would report directly to him.
Connolly shared three pieces of advice for corporate communications professionals. First, the communications team should make sure company executives are trained and informed on key messages. Second, PR pros should measure their efforts to prove the function's value. Finally, comms execs should not "view your business purely from a PR and marketing lens," Connolly said, and instead embrace an integrated strategy and get to know other employees and departments.
"I trust [Harris] more because he's close to so many people and understand the needs of the company," Connolly said.